The Long Song by Andrea Levy

by eashmere

‘Please pardon me, but your storyteller is a woman possessed of a forthright tongue and little ink.’ So begins July’s frequently witty and relentlessly shocking account of her life on the Jamaican sugar plantation, Amity. Born into slavery in the early 1800s, July would once have been ‘put to the lash’ for wielding a pen. Now a justifiably snaky, proud and irreverent old woman, her British-educated son anxiously hovers over her as she writes.

The author Andrea Levy was born in England to Jamaican parents, and began writing the books she had ‘always wanted to read’ in her mid-thirties. Her fourth novel Small Island won multiple awards. The Long Song also demonstrates remarkable skill, weaving in the terrible, cruel, and relentless realities of slavery with a vibrant and inspiring narrative.

I suspect The Long Song hooks us in because all of the characters are in some way flawed. Everyone must look out for themselves in increasingly tumultuous circumstances, but there is also solidarity.

July is a spirited survivor of slavery. Fathered by a drunken Scotchman, she is plucked from her slave mother’s side for the ‘amusement’ of the new mistress of Amity, Caroline Mortimer. Renamed Marguerite, July becomes Caroline’s maid, tending her pillow, ironing her fiddly petticoats, calming her fears on being trumped by the neighbours and listening to her rants on the ‘negro problem’.

Reminiscent of Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, Levy plunges us into the busy kitchens where jealousies rage as ‘turtle served in the shell’, beef, ducks, pork, cheese, vegetable soups and plum puddings are prepared for the ‘fatty-batty’ masters’ Christmas feast. While the guests loll at the table, the plantation musicians fail to deliver ‘civilised music’ , and the slaves subsist on paltry rations. A few moments later the musicians produce flawless renditions, having tired of deliberately annoying their masters.

This novel is expertly researched and deftly and also tenderly written. Levy invites us to hear the voices, so often silenced. The historical details are rich but unobtrusive. The language is poetic and rhythmic. The plot hums along. The dialogue is believable. Familiarity is finely balanced with foreignness.

‘So come, reader, worry no more upon my son’s rudeness, just follow me close,’ says July. Gladly – but tentatively – I followed her as she forged a passionate and precarious relationship with Caroline’s new God-fearing husband, Robert Goodwin, in a basement room at Amity.

Both witness to and participant in the official ending of slavery, July’s ‘long song’ is an important and illuminating journey of heartache, courage, brutality, ingenuity, oppression, resilience, and comparative freedom.

Published in the Northern Rivers Echo

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